Risk and Controversy – The Life of Mary Wortley Montagu

Jo Willett’s new biography.

The story of a woman who has her children inoculated against the smallpox at a time when most people, including the medical establishment, were highly sceptical towards such foreign practices certainly makes for timely reading during a pandemic. Sometimes it is worth taking a small risk to avoid a larger one. 

Mary Wortley Montagu learnt about smallpox inoculation while accompanying her husband on an embassy to Turkey in 1717. Having lost a brother to the disease and still living with the scars from her own brush with the virus, she was determined that her children should not suffer the same fate. So she had her son Edward inoculated in Turkey with the help of a local woman and her family doctor Charles Maitland. Wortley Montagu later introduced the practice to Western medicine after her return to England.

Most controversially, she and Maitland demonstrated the inoculation process on her own young daughter Mary during the 1721 smallpox epidemic in England in a case which caused a great stir among the medical profession and among society as a whole. Subsequently, Mary Wortley Montagu would travel the country to help inoculate the children of her friends and acquaintances and so contributed to establishing the practice in England.

Jo Willett retells this famous story and many other, less well-known ones about this fearless Englishwoman in The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu: Scientist and Feminist. Wortley Montagu certainly did not shy away from risk or controversy. In 1712, then still Mary Pierrepont, she eloped with Edward Wortley Montagu defying her father’s wishes to marry Clotworthy Skeffington and soon became a popular figure in London. She socialised with artists and writers as well as writing prose and poetry herself, and notably striking up an intense friendship with the poet Alexander Pope which later turned sour.

Nevertheless, the labels Willett attaches to Mary Wortley Montagu in her subtitle are jarring, not just because ‘scientist’ and ‘feminist’ are modern concepts. Even using them as analytical categories Willett overplays her hand. If Wortley Montagu should be considered a ‘scientist’ for bringing the smallpox inoculation to England, one might wonder, why was the ‘little old Greek woman’ (xxi) who had taught her about the process not credited in the same way? 

Wortley Montagu’s feminism could be questioned too. No doubt, she was an intelligent and independent woman with her own mind, she loved travelling and exploring and writing about it with great insight, and it is sad to think that we should still consider these features unusual. She also reflected much on the role and status of women and their relative lack of freedom.

But the story told by Willett also shows a woman who travelled for years around Europe in pursuit of one man, Count Francesco Algarotti, who clearly did not love her, and who found herself deceived and deprived of her freedom by another, Count Ugolino Palazzi, against whom she seems to have put up little resistance. 

Willett tells a lively story, based on anecdote as well as original research, and she manages to tease out Wortley Montagu’s character so well that we feel that we know the author of the Embassy Letters and understand her world. But she also tries too hard to make us like her heroine and excuse her flaws, even when she abandons her children or ridicules a potential rape victim. 

Sometimes it might just be fine to take a dispassionate look at one’s subject. It would certainly not make Mary Wortley Montagu a less fascinating character. 

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Jo Willett, The Pioneering Life of Mary Wortley Montagu (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2021), 288pp, hardback, ISBN: 9781526779380, 20GPB.

By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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